Born in Prague in 1891, Hans Kohn was the prolific author of numerous erudite and sophisticated works on history, Judaism, and nationalism. His life, chronicled in a recent biography by Adi Gordon, can be understood as a series of disillusionments: in his youth he was an active Zionist; he later became a pacifist; by 1929 he rejected Zionism altogether, moving to the U.S., where he became a major figure in the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. At the beginning of World War II, he abandoned pacifism (but not anti-Zionism) and later became a cold warrior. He died in 1971, disillusioned with America’s conduct of the Vietnam war. Allan Arkush, while praising Gordon’s work, questions his conclusion that there is much to learn from Kohn’s “Sisyphean struggle with nationalism”:
Hans Kohn deserves to be remembered as an outstanding member of an astonishing group of Central and East European-born Jewish historians and political theorists who wrote extensively and penetratingly about nationalism and played significant parts in the histories of a variety of different national movements. . . . But I doubt a return to Kohn’s writings or a recollection of his career will help us now, as Jews.
This is, in part, because I am disinclined to believe that anyone who has separated himself from the community in the way that Kohn did can remain relevant. It’s not just that he turned against Zionism; he rejected Judaism and Jewishness altogether. In the end, as Gordon observes, Kohn “described Jewishness as devoid of any intrinsic value, as something merely to be tolerated: ‘there is no reason,’ [wrote Kohn], ‘to be proud of being a Jew or a Christian or a Turk.’” In this connection, it’s also worth remembering that . . . Kohn brought up his son Immanuel (named after Kant) “in the New England establishment with little to no Jewish context or education.” . . .
It is, in the end, impossible to see what Kohn has to contribute to ongoing reconsiderations of Zionism that we aren’t regularly hearing from other uncompromising opponents of ethnic nationalism and defenders of the wholly impractical idea of a binational state. . . . For all his experience and accomplishments, Hans Kohn is one of those extraordinary figures whom we can safely leave behind us.